11/02/2009
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Extremadura diary: January

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The weather has been pretty poor here for most of January: lots of rain, even a sprinkling of snow one day in the village, with cold northerly winds, the tail-end of the stuff you have been getting in the UK. Bad weather is not conducive to good birding anywhere but as the birds here seem used to having it easy it makes for extremely difficult birding indeed. The larks disappear, probably hiding in bushes and longer grass to avoid the worst extremes, but soon reappear in huge flocks when the sun peeks through the grey clouds. Flocks of over 400 Calandra Larks are not unusual, sprinkled with Meadow Pipits, Crested, Wood and Thekla Larks and Corn Buntings make a great sight when they wheel over the steppe after disturbance by a roaming raptor. Huge flocks of Goldfinches on the dried thistle heads are reminiscent of days gone by in the UK, their vivid, yellow wing-streaks seemingly glowing in the sunlight.

There have been lots of Greenfinches here this winter: a rarity indeed, almost worth a twitch. It is strange how common birds in one country can be such a rarity in another. White Storks, for example, are hardly worth a glance here, although they are great to watch — especially as they perform their bill-"clacking" when greeting a mate. The Great and Little Bustards are starting to disperse from their huge winter flocks, and are becoming easier to find as they make their way to their annual lekking sites. The Great Bustard males are starting the first stage of their display, strutting round the smaller females, with tails cocked at 90°, looking very important. Red Kites are everywhere, along with Black-shouldered Kites, far more than a normal January: the general consensus is that the bad weather in Central Spain has driven them to warmer Extremadura. The same seems to be the case for the Alpine Accentors; they have arrived this month, the heavy snow in the Gredos seemingly driving them to the high rocky crags locally.


Griffon Vultures (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

The Griffon Vultures have been busy returning to nests with branches and broom, refurbishing last year's home and noisily evicting squatters. Griffons never cease to amaze me; finding a dead sheep is always worth a wait. First one, then hundreds of them, will circle above the carcass. A brave one will land about 10 metres away, soon to be joined by the larger Black Vulture, forming a ring around the unfortunate dead animal. One will then shuffle forward (it can hardly be called a walk), prod the animal and jump backwards — making sure it is dead I suppose. After a few prods, the general feeling is that it is definitely dead, then the free-for-all starts, with Griffons tumbling over each other, fights breaking out and lots of noise. Within a very short time all that is left is bones, and the Kites and Ravens dive in to clean up any scraps. The Griffon will gorge itself until it can eat no more, hopping away to digest its meal, but if disturbed, it can instantly disgorge its entire meal to enable it to fly away unharmed.

Near crags, the Spanish Imperial Eagles are displaying above their nest sites, climbing high, and stooping down with great speed, pulling out at the last second, and calling loudly. There is some concern here as the Griffons are increasing exponentially, and steal the old nests from the Imperials, making it harder for them to find suitable sites. The Eagle Owls have also been displaying, seeing off any intruder, claiming old nest sites. They are fearless, and will easily attack a much larger Griffon to protect their home. By late January the female will be sitting on eggs, so from now until April will be the best time to see them (if you know where the nest is of course!). She will call around dusk if she is hungry, then the male will fly in with food, then fly off again to his own bachelor pad.

It is very difficult to find all the overwintering waders as all the rice fields have now been cut and ploughed, leaving thousands of hectares of shallow flooded fields for them to choose from. It is far easier in October when only the first of the fields have been ploughed, and all the waders congregate in one place. The 60,000 or so Cranes that overwinter here are conversely very difficult to miss. The Red Avadavats are swelled in numbers at this time of year by lots of noisy youngsters. They breed in November, and the males are already losing their bright red plumage. You can still find flocks of several thousand Dunlin, both the short-billed and the long-billed. Views in poor light sometimes cause a heart flutter as a slightly different-plumaged one is found, and flocks are constantly juggled by marauding Hen and Marsh Harriers.

Common Crane
Common Crane, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

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Accompanying the Dunlin are usually 200–300 Little Stints, an amazing sight as they feed in their own little gangs on the edge of the Dunlin flock; tens of Kentish Plovers already forming their gorgeous summer plumage, are seemingly under the guard of Golden Plovers as if they are some larger uncle taking care of them. Fields with deeper water will hold Spotted Redshanks, Redshanks, Black-winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff and thousands of Lapwings, along with the many Cattle and Little Egrets, Grey Herons, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls feeding on the crayfish that abound in the well-irrigated fields. When a field is being ploughed, instead of seeing gulls following the tractor, as in the rural UK, there are Egrets, Herons and Storks all within millimetres of the machinery. Yet when a human form is spotted they all take to the air until the perceived threat is over, years of persecution from hunters still being ingrained as caution.


Little Stint (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

The large expanses of water, mainly huge reservoirs, are covered in ducks, thousands upon thousands of them: great rafts of Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, sprinkled with Red-crested Pochards and Black-necked Grebes. There are two large reservoirs close to me, only about 1km apart; one is the home for hundreds of Great Crested Grebes, the other the abode of seemingly the whole European population of Coot, but you never see a Grebe on the Coot lake, and vice versa.

The populations of Hawfinch in the woods are swollen by migrants from the north. Flocks of 30 or more Blackcaps occur, and finding five Firecrests in one tree is not an unusual occurrence. Robins are everywhere, but finding one in summer would be a real coup. My bogey bird has now been realised too: a friend has found at least five Wrynecks here this winter, but for some reason I have never been able to spot one. I am sure everyone has a bogey bird which, no matter how common, they never seem to see. Wryneck was mine. I received a call from another friend telling me the location of one some guests had found. I rushed there first thing the next morning, and spent eight hours combing the orchard, to no avail. When I got home, there was an email from the same friend apologising for giving me the wrong location. OK, these things happen, no problem. The next day I went to the correct location, and as soon as I pulled up in the car, there it was: a Wryneck. So they weren't mythical at all, they were real! I have been to the same location four times since to try and photograph it, but I've never seen it since. It must be camera-shy.

I hope this diary has given you some insight into the bird life and birding here in Extremadura, and hopefully I will be writing one every month for this year, to show you how the birds and birding change as the year progresses.

Written by: Steve Fletcher